(This is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)
When they say first impressions are everything, well… They’re right. I’m not talking about in your personal life, where that person who rubbed you the wrong way when you first met later became one of your closest friends. But in the professional world, where you’re subconsciously judged by the firmness of your handshake or the warmth of your “good morning,” a first impression can make a world of difference.
Employers - including employers of paralegals - often make decisions about who to hire based on their first impression of the applicant. Some businesses are even beginning to re-title their receptionist or front desk position to “Director of First Impressions,” recognizing the importance of these positions in setting the tone for their entire company.
Be a Professional First Impression-Maker In addition to being one of these aforementioned “Director of First Impressions,” at CENTER FOR ADVANCED LEGAL STUDIES (though that is not my official title), I am also a professional actor. If there is any field that realizes the significance of first impressions and where careers and employment depend sometimes entirely on that first impression, it’s theatre.
Both in my studies to earn my MFA in Acting and my professional work since then, I’ve learned that an actor’s real job is a professional auditioner. From the second you walk into an audition, you are being sized up and assessed. Most directors know whether or not they might cast you in a matter of seconds, before you even begin your audition.
And in most casting calls, you have 60-90 seconds to do your audition. 60-90 seconds to somehow stand out among the dozens or hundreds of people auditioning that day. From my experience in both the legal office/administrative setting and the acting/auditioning arena, it would be fair to say I’m a professional first impression-maker.
First Impressions in the Paralegal Field First impressions are no less important in the legal arena, specifically for paralegals. Your career path in law could be drastically different depending on the kind of first impression you make. Whether it’s interviewing with attorneys for a coveted job or being the first person to meet with a new client, paralegals also need to be professional first impression-makers. You’re first greeting or handshake with a client sets the tone and expectation for all of their dealings with your firm.
Your Chance to Be the Exception! Here’s the thing about making good, no, great first impressions: it’s not common.
I’m shocked by how many very pleasant and competent individuals still do not make great impressions at first. Self-awareness is a tricky thing, and if you want to improve your first impression skills, you may need to ask others what their first impression of you was. Don’t shy away from doing some unflinching self-analysis here or asking for insights from others. Rest assured, if you can make a great first impression, you will stand out.
Tips on Making a Great First Impression I want to share a few tips on making great first impressions. I am not going to present to you those typical and common-sense bullet-points so often thrown around in these types of conversations. Yes, dress professionally and neatly. Yes, give a firm (NOT limp, NOT death-grip) handshake. Yes, remember names, smile, and make eye contact. Of course, of course, of course.
These things are extremely important, both in the paralegal field and any area of life, and should be second-nature to you. Have a few trusted friends or colleagues rate how well you do these things if you’re not sure.
But, I want to talk to you about those more enigmatic aspects of a first impression, two subtle factors that change a good first impression to a great first impression: Comfort and Confidence. We’ll look at Comfort first and talk about Confidence next time (part two).
Comfort We hear “be yourself” so often. But do we really do it?
Have you ever caught yourself having a drastically different work persona from your rest-of-life persona? I know I have. I think sometimes we “put on” a professional version of our self instead of simply being who we are in a professional setting. Or we try to be who we think our potential employer (or casting director!) wants us to be.
The thing is, folks, people see through it. It comes across as fake. I can’t stress the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. I once had a position where I felt that I couldn’t meet my employers’ expectations and I was walking on eggshells around them. Instead of taking a deep breath and continuing to be real around them, I noticed that I was developing a reserved and deferential “work persona,” scared to make a wrong move; and I’m sure that this unnatural and uncomfortable work persona in turn affected my interactions with their clients.
Since then, I have consciously tried to bring more consistency to who I am at work and who I am everywhere else, trying to be the same person to everyone I come in contact with during the day. I still sometimes cringe when I answer the phone and hear a tad of a “phone voice” in my voice. It’s an ongoing process. But think how rare and refreshing it is when you talk to someone who seems so comfortable with themselves, so real and genuine. Don’t you want to be that person?
This article will be continued in “Paralegals and the Art of First Impressions, Part 2 of 2.” Be sure to check back to read about how true confidence is portrayed in a first impression. It can change your entire paralegal career!